Friday, May 18, 2018

This, that, the other, but no, it's not any of those.

An author who spoke at the last conference I attended said something along the lines of :
“You can’t have a book that straddles genres. It’s either this or that, it can never be both.”

First, I narrowed the genres to Thriller, Crime, Mystery, and Sci-Fi, but it also fits with Police Procedural and Speculative Fiction, but these aren’t listed as “main” genres.

Then I looked up my comps and found that one was filed at the bookstore under “Police Procedural” and another with a similar concept was “Science Fiction”, and yet another was “Thriller”. Truthfully, mine has all of these aspects, and all had similar themes and concepts - so I’m well and truly befuddled.

Can you (or should you) not categorize your book in two genres? Do you list a “main”, then mention the others nonchalantly in the rest of the query?

Example:
“I write Erotica, but it’s a period piece set in prehistoric times with interspecies elements.”


Books can't straddle genres?
That's utter bunk.

Your own research verifies that; you found books in multiple places, listed in a variety of genres.

Category and genre is often in the eye of the beholder. Books I thought were thrillers got published and sold as science fiction.  Books I thought were literary fiction got picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club.

There's no one right or wrong answer on category for a lot of books, particularly ones that play with form, setting, style and genre "requirements."

In fact some of the most interesting books I know are ones that straddle genre.

Which makes me wonder who is saying this kind of absolutlist nonsense.  People who make definitive statements about what is or isn't ok/acceptable/done/not done are just begging to be proved wrong.

My turn at bat was one cozy afternoon sitting with a bunch of sharks in training. They were reading queries, and I was amusing them with hilariarious anecdotes running my mouth.  The subject of word count arose. I asserted boldly that one million words was Just Too Long. It would Never Be Published.

Silently, a senior colleague walked to her office and returned with a very thick paperback.

Sacajawea

1400+ pages.
1.2 pound mass market (mass market paperbacks run 6-8 ounces--I checked!)

About a million words.
And that is verifiable because the woman who handed it to me was the editor of the book.

So just when you think there are absolute rules, you find out there aren't.

BUT category is a slippery beast. Y'all get it wrong almost as often as you get it right.

To get it right: know the rules of your genre and category. Even if you break them, it doesn't mean you're not in that category.

Pick the one where your book mostly falls. If it's two categories like science fiction thriller, know that thriller readers don't often shop in the sf section of book stores.  Who is the more likely reader for your book? What published book will your reader know and like?

This is exactly why I tell writers to put category LAST in their query no matter what the query guidelines say to do. You don't want an agent passing on your SF novel cause she doesn't do SF when in fact you've got a thriller set in space.

And be wary of anyone telling you things are always this or always that and never this other. EVEN  ME. When figuring out how to query, I'd listen to agents first, editors second, and authors last. Authors aren't reading the incoming queries. I am. Authors aren't wrangling with editors on category for a variety of books. I am. Authors know a lot about writing, and listening to them about craft is a good idea.


Sorry this was late. I thought I'd hit publish but it was saved as a draft.

35 comments:

nightsmusic said...

What if we don't want to add a genre? Many put comps in their queries and that would give an idea without pigeonholing the book. I've also seen queries where there are no comps and no genre. Maybe I'm naive, but I would hope if my query is strong enough and my pages enticing enough, I can leave it up to others to sort it all out.

Also, there are a lot of books out there that are not on the shelf according to the publisher's idea of genre. But that's another topic...

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I love the trick of looking at comps and seeing where they sit if you're struggling to figure out what genre your book is.

But I definitely like to stick to your rule of "no more than 2" when stating genres in the query.

Miles O'Neal said...

The first murder mysteries, or perhaps police procedurals, or in some cases thrillers, I read were all by Larry Niven. They were all classified as science fiction- which they were. Some in particular stand out.
The Gil Hamilton stories are set in the future, complete with everyday space travel and blasters. Gil is a cop who goes after organleggers- people who murder others to sell their organs. So, sci-fi/pol proc or similar. But Gil lost an arm, but his mind doesn't recognize that, so he has a psionic arm (a psi construct of an arm). While it's not as strong as his original arm, he can still use it to great effect. So we're getting into paranormal territory as well.
I already loved science fiction. Because of these boundary-bending stories, I started seeking out mystery/detective books and paranormal (we called it something else) stories as well.
To this day, if you mention a paranormal scifi cop book, you have my undivided attention.

PAH said...

So I am probably better off going with "Science Fiction" instead of the more agnostic "Speculative Fiction"???

(It's not /really/ sci-fi, but it's set in the not-so-distant future and there are elements of sci-fi and there's one very odd and important element that's more fantastical than anything... thus why I was going with Speculative.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Ok. I nearly fainted when I found the Reef sharkless this morning. I really must swim in wider waters.

So I am going to call my work fantasy in that peaky nether paragraph of my query and let the agent ponder all the possible sub-catagories: horror, paranormal romance, dragon porn, etc

french sojourn said...


Miles, that reminds me of one of my favorite detective stories. "Do androids dream of electric sheep". The movie version wasn't bad either, Blade Runner.

Sam Mills said...

The nice thing about SFF is that we're already used to mash-ups. I looove finding books with the imaginative settings of spec fic layered with the plot-centric structures of other genres. (Robert Jackson Bennett wrote some fantasy spy novels; Scott Lynch has fantasy heists; numerous authors have reimagined a zillion historical periods via -punk and sometimes utilize the style, e.g. epistolary; urban fantasy spiraled out of detective plots; weird westerns; etc)

Currently on my TBR pile: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (locked room mystery with clooones in spaaace); Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames (getting the band back together). Er and more I'm sure, I'm away from my stack. *_*

Colin Smith said...

While Jeff Somers' book WRITING WITHOUT RULES (which every writer reading this blog needs to own, and I'm really not kidding) is centered on writing, one of the things Jeff helps disabuse us of is the idea that there's any set way of how things work in publishing.

One thing matters to a writer: doing work that people will buy and read. Follow query guidelines as well as you can (aside from the housekeeping which you ALWAYS put last). Take your best stab at getting the category right, and don't be unnecessarily verbose, but don't sweat the small print. Keep your eye on what matters.

Seriously. Get the book. I think Jeff's is the first craft book (including King's masterpiece) where my recommendation is borderline command, and without hesitation or qualification. You're a writer? Buy the book.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ha, so you thought you hit "publish" and you actually hit "draft." Well sweetheart, I cannot tell you how many times I hit "publish" when I should have hit "draft."

Um, writing "one million words" is easy.
I just did.
Bada bing bada boom.

BrendaLynn said...

The confusing issue for me is Suspense vs Thriller. Or Suspense/Thriller and its plethora of subgenres. I've also been told to list whether my book is Adult, Young Adult, etc.
As writers we look at our work and see nuances and inflections because we are invested in the world of our novel. I suspect that the business looks at our work and sees marketability, and rightly so.
Get 'em to the till (or the library) first.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I think Alan Moore's JERUSALEM is also rumored to be a million words? I haven't picked it up other than to process it for barcoding at my library, so I can't comment regarding readability.

It's funny, in my rejections sometimes, genre magazines tell me that a story is "too literary" and literary magazines, well, those are always forms and I've stopped submitting to them, by and large. Speculative fiction is just what I write, be it science fiction, fantasy, or just some weird shit ^^

In other news, I got married this morning! I figured the Reef might be interested.

Joseph Snoe said...

My semi-serious theory is a lot of stories have the same elements but are categorized based on time and place.

A man out to avenge the murder of his son set in 13th century England is a historical novel. The man rides horses or carriages, fights with swords or knife or arrows.

A man out to avenge the murder of his son in a world of magic and odd creatures, perhaps spirits in the night, is a fantasy novel. He rides horses or dragons with wings, and fights also with swords and the occasional magic spell.

A man out to avenge the murder of his son on another planet, in space or in the far future is a science fiction novel. He rides flying cars or teleporters or flying packs, and fights with ray guns.

A man out to avenge the murder of his son this year in sunny California is thriller. He rides fast cars or walks, and uses guns or Ak-15s.

A man out to avenge the murder of his son and falls in love with the woman he mistakenly suspects of killing his son is a romance novel. They misunderstand each other a lot.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Lovely news,Jennifer. Congrats!

Joseph Snoe said...

Carolynnwith2Ns - On emails I hit "send" too many times when I should hit "delete."

nightsmusic - I too wonder if it would be better to say "novel" instead of stipulating a potentially misleading genre label in the query.

Joseph Snoe said...

Happy Day - Jennifer R. Donohue

I am curious what the groom is doing while you spend time with us.

Also, thanks for mentioning Alan Moore. I didn't know he wrote novels. I followed him for years in his comic work. What he did with Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta and Watchmen was incredible.

nightsmusic said...

Jennifer! Congratulations!

2N's If you use Gmail, you absolutely need to turn on Enable Undo Send under settings and give yourself more than the 30 second default time. Can't tell you how many times it's saved me!

Joseph I've taken to including comps and not mentioning genre in my queries. I figure an agent will get where I'm going.

Steve Stubbs said...

I suspect the author quoted meant if you are a beginner, your book cannot transgress rigid genre rules. Established writers can do what they want.

I saw a comment on another site by an agent who said a genre romance novel that ends in divorce is an automatic NORMAN. That doesn't mean you can't write about divorce. All those of us who have ever been married consider divorce to be the greatest invention since The Wheel. But romance novels are fantasies. Divorce is a super exciting aspect of Reality.

GONE GIRL deals with women's attitudes toward men and relationships very realistically. But nobody pretends it is a genre romance.

If you write a book as a non-medical cure for insomnia, you can't market it as a thriller. The genre is memoir. There are too many people writing non-medical cures for insomnia anyway.

Dinosaurs have been dead for millions of years. If you set your story in the future and it has dinosaurs in it, you'd better be Michael Crichton.

Colin Smith said...

Speak for yourself Steve. Still very happily married after 26.5 years, thanks. :)

BTW, folks, there have been some excellent and useful posts recently (including this one) that I will get around to adding to the Treasure Chest soon. Promise!

C.M. Monson said...

This post comes at the perfect time. I have been pulling my hair out trying to figure out what category my YA novel falls in. Thank you, Janet.

Craig F said...

The line that keeps slipping from my grasp is the one between Speculative and Science Fiction. Most days I consider it a political one. It depends on how the market is shaping up on a particular day. Thrillers usually sell better(on in individual scale) than sci-fi. But particular genres fill up because of things like that.

Suspense/thriller is easy if you think of suspense as being psychological while thrillers have an action base. There are innumerable shades of grey here too.

Current WIP is about a businessman trying to drag the world into the 21st century. It has hints of mystery and thriller for spice but I will call it sci-fi.

Even Asimov's Robot series is a mystery in the wrong setting. It starts with the murder of the inventor of the positronic brain.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

psst, Colin would you mind adding "Surveillance Fatigue" in Escape Pod to my Treasure Chest entry? Thanks in advance! :D

Thanks for the congrats, folks ^^

John Davis Frain said...

Jennifer!

Something borrowed, something blue,
Happy Day to Y-O-U.

Wow. Stay happy.
That is all.

Julie Weathers said...

Jennifer

Congratulations! I wish you both nothing but the very best in good times and bad. There's no such thing as a perfect marriage, but there is such a thing as people who are perfect for each other and I trust you have found that joy. What a wonderful day for you.

I've related this before, but it still applies. The Outlander books regularly appear in historical, romance, science fiction, fantasy, literature, and novels because no one knows where to put them. Diana fought one major chain tooth and toenail to stop stocking them in romance and finally showed them the sales records of another chain that stocked them in a more generic section to prove to them they were hurting their own sales. Money talks. They stopped stocking them in romance.

OP you certainly can have cross-genre books. If you go through the manuscript wish list, a lot of agents are asking for them. Anything works if it works. The problem with authors telling you stuff doesn't work is they are telling you things from one perspective usually, theirs. Gabaldon firmly asserts anything works if you do it well and that's the trick. Do something so well it knocks their socks off and let the agent worry about where to stick it. You come up with what you think is your best fit. They'll determine the true fit. There's a reason good shoe or boot stores measure your feet instead of just taking your word you wear a size five while they're looking at your size nine.

Rain Crow has some supernatural elements, but I'm not mentioning that because it isn't an integral part of the story and I'm not going down that path with agents. Though it has strong spying elements, it's not really even a spy novel. I'm not sure how to present it other than historical.

Jill Warner said...

Jennifer, that's so exciting! Congratulations!

I've shot myself in the foot **so** many times with my arrogant, absolutist statements that now when I hear them, I automatically flinch and wait for the pain. At least I've never said anything stupid enough to land me as shark bait... Yet.

kdjames.com said...

Jennifer, congratulations! Wishing you both a long happy life together.

I struggled with deciding which genre to use when we did our pitches here. I've come to think of my WIP as if Clive Cussler and Jane Austen had a book baby, only Dirk Pitt is a woman and Mr. Darcy is a genius tech inventor (thriller, romance), set in a darkly towering mansion with hidden passages (gothic) in an alternate reality where old magic and cutting edge technology meld (science fiction), plus dragons (fantasy). Oh, and a 14 yo girl is a significant character (YA) and there's a talking ermine (children). I settled for fantasy, as clearly I'm living in a fantasy world if I think I can pull this off. Maybe I should have gone with humor . . .

Hope everyone has a fantastic weekend. I'm sitting here impatiently awaiting the imminent birth of my first grandchild and might be scarce around here once that happens. :)

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer: As you wish! Tis done. And CONGRATULATIONS!! May you both have life-long joy together. :)

AJ Blythe said...

Jennifer, congratulations! And I hope Janet appreciates the dedication of her readers (coming to the Reef on your wedding day!!).

Sorry, Steve, I'm with Colin on this. I've spent more of my life with The Hub than without (hitting our 22nd wedding anniversary later this year) and wouldn't have it any other way.

nightsmusic said...

Steve, while I think you may have had a less than stellar divorce, don't lump us all together. Husband and I celebrated 37 years married on the 9th of this month and have been together 40. While it hasn't always been easy, it's been grand!

Beth Carpenter said...

Jennifer, congratulations! Best wishes for a long and glorious life together. It was 36 years ago this past Monday for us, and we're still going strong.

Lennon Faris said...

Genre are hard.

nightsmusic, I think you should at least take a stab at a genre. I assume your query and pages will be stellar, but the less an agent has to try to figure out on their own, I think the better.

Jennifer - congratulations!! I do love that you spent part of your wedding day on the Reef. That just makes me chuckle. And it's kinda like we all celebrated with you, so thanks for the honor!

Lennon Faris said...

"Genre are hard."

So is English, apparently. Folks, it's been a long day. Peace out!

CynthiaMc said...

Congratulations, Jennifer!

Hubby and I are coming up on our 40th this summer. Wouldn't trade it for anything.

Hubby's car died tonight. I went to pick him up and my car died. What were the chances of that? 3 tow trucks and 2 mechanics later we are all at home, thanks to our son, who only lives 10 minutes away.

Looks like it's time for me to write that best seller. Lord help.

french sojourn said...


Jennifer, Congratulations, of all the institutions, marriage is my favorite. Be well, stay happy, and occasionally gaze into each others eyes.

Cheers! Hank.

John Davis Frain said...

Hank, if you get a nickel every time someone uses that line, I'm gonna send you two bucks to get me through June. You prefer dollars or euros?

Laina said...

OP at any point did you run into the In Death series by J. D. Robb? Those are set in futuristic New York (science fiction) but they're mysteries, and they have strong romantic elements (being written by Nora Roberts).